What's the matter with... Philadelphia?
There didn't seem to be much "brotherly love" in either of the pivotal Democratic presidential debates held there -- not in the Russert-Williams grilling of Hillary Clinton last October and not in the Gibson-Stephanopoulos cross-examination of Barack Obama last Wednesday.
Was the one thing each debate had in common that panelists went after the front-runner each time? I asked this of our headliner Senator Sen. Byron Dorgan and then panelists Arianna Huffington and David Bender. And the answer and conversation went off on... ABC News.
Being a hopelessly high-minded Democrat, I too agree it would have been ideal to have asked any so-called "gotcha" questions at the end, not the start of the 90 minutes -- and questions about William Ayers and flag pins reflect the awful rise of Gaffegate, when the sensational pushes out the significant. A Gresham's law of politics.
But Gibson-Stephanopoulos aren't on the ballot. What really matters in the days before the Pennsylvania moment is how Barack Obama responded to the assault. In my view, he lost the debate and won the post-debate.
Let's face it. Obama had a bad month and week. Perhaps not as bad as American Airlines and Bear Stearns but the combination of a poor debate performance and answering questions about Rev. Wright and his "bitter" comments put his campaign on the defensive.
So why haven't the polls appreciably moved? The headlines changed, voters didn't. So far, Obama appears to have developed a Teflon skin every bit as impressive as Reagan's. Why?
*Style: His casual, cool, bemused manner -- including his hip-hop move of physically flicking off the attacks and teasing his opponent as "Annie Oakley" -- is very winsome. Recall how when Jimmy Carter accurately nailed Ronald Reagan for wanting to privatize and thereby undermine Social Security, Reagan's now uber-famous "there you go again" completely turned the tables on the hapless incumbent. During the ABC debate, as Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times, Obama managed to "hang onto his soft diction, flat affects and refusal to project anger." When I asked one Democratic Senator about what Obama was like with his colleagues, he noted that "he's very at ease, funny and unflappable", which are not bad traits in the heat of a presidential primary contest or indeed a presidency.
*Chorus. Whenever Obama is criticized, by Clinton or by the media, Obama-ites are indignant and intense in their massive retaliation, especially in the blogosphere. It's immensely valuable for a candidate to have an ardent base of support that protects him or her when s/he does screw up, as inevitably happens. Clinton does have older women on her side but they're no match now in the viral verdicts that now dominate our 24-second news cycle.
*Money. Obama's phenomenal fund-raising, doubling Clinton's month after month, also provides him a wall of commercials to stand behind. While 30-second ads this late in a presidential campaign are not decisive, as we say of chicken soup, they can't 'hoit.'
*The Drip-Drip Strategy. Clinton grabbed an early lead in polls and Superdelegates when she was the strong early favorite. Now the momentum is largely Obama's way, as his campaign shrewdly releases a super-delegate here and super-endorsement there (Reich, Nunn, Borsen, Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers) to blunt bad news.
All of this helped slow or stem any serious questioning of his bona fides or lead. Indeed, there were moments in the debate that a policy roundtable could plausibly question: he's now for the Scalia view that there's an individual right to bear arms in the second amendment, which contradicts the 1939 Supreme Court decision on the matter; he falsely denied that his handwriting was on that decade-old questionnaire about choice; and as George Packer wrote in The New Yorker, it was a flub or worse "to equate guns and religion with racism and xenophobia," especially since small town voters have embraced hunting and church pre-industrial revolution, certainly pre-Bushonomics.
And, like it or not, why are McCain insiders starting to rub their hands with glee that attacks on Obama's positions and associations make him the more vulnerable Democrat in the Fall? McCain in effect implied as much when he harshly attacked the Ayers-Obama connection on This Week with George Stephanopoulos this Sunday.
None of this broke through because of Obama's thick Teflon. Then, because of a campaign with a powerful theme of change and a candidate who carries it off with poise and flair, 35,000 show up to cheer him in Philadelphia Friday night. 35,000 is a lot of people, probably the most ever for a presidential candidate. John McCain has trouble attracting 350.
Hillary Clinton now reminds me of John Kerry in his general election. When Kerry personally bailed out his stumbling campaign with brilliant debate appearances against Bush, he closed the gap, for a while. Clinton too is better than her own campaign, as her smarts and grit keep it close and competitive. But Obama so far has met and passed his Timex Test -- he's takin' a lickin' and kept on tickin'. At least until Tuesday in Pennsylvania.
Listen to our panel on Pennsylvania and beyond here.
EXCERPTS FROM THE APRIL 19TH 7 DAYS PROGRAM, W/DORGAN, HUFFINGTON. GREEN & BENDER
DORGAN: Q: How can Democrats lose a debate to John McCain on whether we should increase taxes on those earning over $250,000 annually? "Well, we shouldn't. But I refuse to lose a debate that I'm not having. McCain and others say that the Democrats want to raise taxes on middle income workers. That's not true at all. Do Democrats believe that the folks on Wall Street who are earning billions of dollars each and are paying 15% rate on income tax should pay more in taxes? You're darn right I do! I think most Americans would feel that way as well" GREEN: "When they say, 'Oh, Dorgan, you're engaging in class warfare,' what's your answer?" DORGAN: "Warren Buffett says, 'Class warfare exists and my class is winning.' And he's the richest man in the world."
DORGAN Q: What should a Democratic presidential nominee say about gasoline prices at the pump? "I'd stop the Bush administration from putting 70,000 gallons of oil underground everyday. We ought to increase the margin requirements for those who are speculating on the futures markets. You can control 100,000 gallons of oil for 4-6 thousand dollars. To set the country on a real path to less dependence on foreign oil and more conservation and more efficiency and more investment and more predictability in the investment capability in renewable energy and renewable fuels."
DORGAN: Q: How optimistic are you that Americans this Fall won't fall for distracting arguments about flag pins but will say, 'we're in a bad war and a bad economy -- what are your plans for each?' "I sure hope so. So, McCain says 'bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran' and was making a joke, right? Are we gonna dance on the heads of these pins from now to election day or are the American people really going to decide on what is really central to people's lives and their future? Make a choice this November to make a fundamental change in this country."
HUFFINGTON: Q: Were the questions posed by ABC to Barack Obama like the questions directed at Hillary Clinton five months ago by NBC's Tim Russert -- par for the course for a front-runner? "It doesn't have anything to do with being a front-runner. It has to do with the way the right (wing) and their talking points have actually infiltrated the public debate. I found it stunning and honestly I don't think it's about Obama or Clinton. There was something about the relentless use of Republican talking points."
HUFFINGTON: Q: How do you feel about breaking the Obama story where he said that voters in small towns are bitter and clinging to church and guns? "There was very little choice but to post the story. We did not know that it would be so distorted and manipulated by the media, but it was a newsworthy story and we are a news site. I think it was a sort of defining moment. People now believe us that we will post newsworthy stories and the chips will fall where they may."
BENDER: Q: The Pope has talked a lot about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church on his trip this week; has it helped defuse this horrible problem? "The Pope is the head of state. The Vatican is a sovereign state as Rachel Maddow points out, probably smaller than our base in Baghdad. What normal heads of state do when they visit America is they review the troops. They go and see the military. Well, someone in the White House figured out that they couldn't have the Pope review the troops so let's have him review...the boy scouts! Only in Bush's America can that happen."